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Hot lunch: Bynes and Stone in Easy A.

The Pinkish Letter

By Shawn Stone

Easy A

Directed by Will Gluck

Since making a comedy based on the real lives of American teens is hard (and potentially dangerous), Easy A follows in the footsteps of Clueless (Jane Austen) and Ten Things I Hate About You (Shakespeare) and borrows heavily from a work in the literary canon—Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

Odd choice, huh? But now, as then, it’s perfectly acceptable to ruin a woman’s life based on a presumed right to police her sexuality. In Letter, American Puritan Hester Prynne gets knocked up out of wedlock and is ostracized by her village; here, American teenager Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone) loses her virginity to a community-college dude, and follows this up by tramping around with a few of her high-school classmates. She is then ostracized by almost everyone at her school.

Except, of course, that Olive doesn’t really lose her virginity or become sexually active; if she did, she wouldn’t be the lead character in a Hollywood movie. (She’d be a slut.) Olive fakes losing her virginity, owing to circumstances and motives that move beyond real-world logic into the realm of farce.

Of course, there’s a trap in this kind of contorted farce: It reinforces the status quo mores. It doesn’t challenge them.

The contradictions portrayed in the film’s teen world are many. While they act and speak with unbridled vulgarity—“I’m known for having big tits? Yes!” says Olive’s BFF—these teens are sexually ineffectual and chaste. And while these youth live in a world of R-rated entertainment, it’s possible to get detention—and move yourself one step closer to being expelled—by uttering an innocent epithet like “twat.”

Having read enough stories in the daily papers about suburban parents going batshit over some similar happening, this scene rang true. As for the rest—hey, it’s only a Hollywood movie. And, oddly enough, it’s not at all a bad movie.

Emma Stone, as Olive, is wonderfully self-possessed and thoroughly convincing, whether dealing with painful situations in a mature way or calling the school’s crazy Christian girl (Amanda Bynes)—you guessed it—a twat. You believe Olive is capable of navigating the plot’s emotional contortions.

Director Will Gluck tarts things up with a lot of cinematic sass—freeze-frames, speeded-up motion, crazy camera moves—which prove clever enough to not become annoying. The cast is delightful, from Olive’s goofy parents (Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci) to the school’s badass principal (Malcolm McDowell) to her gruff, deadpan favorite teacher (Thomas Haden Church) and his wife, the guidance counselor from hell (Lisa Kudrow). And while the moon-faced Bynes is very fine as the aforementioned crazy Christian girl, can we get rid of “crazy Christian girl” as a teen-movie staple?

Whatevs. Maybe Easy A will inspire a few kids to read The Scarlet Letter. More likely, though, it will inspire some studio to greenlight a teenage reworking of, say, a restoration play. ‘Tis Pity She’s a Hoe, anyone?

 

Good on Ya, Fellas

Animal Kingdom

Directed by David Michôd

In the midst of an extended “good cop” hard sell, detective Nathan Leckie (Guy Pierce) delivers a boiled-down version of the survival of the fittest: There’s the strong, those protected by the strong and—to paraphrase—the screwed. In Leckie’s rendition, 17-year-old Josh “J” Cody (James Frecheville) is about to be demoted.

J’s family—a notorious, if unglamorous band of Australian career criminals—is fracturing under the murderous pursuit of the renegade armed-robbery section of the police department. J, a formerly estranged latecomer to the gang, is caught between the cops, on the one hand, and the treachery of his mentally unstable Uncle “Pope” (Ben Mendelsohn), on the other.

Rogue cops have assassinated the moral center of the family, Uncle Baz, who was ready to kick the crime habit for day trading, anyway. So, in Baz’s absence, the batshit crazy and paranoid Pope takes over, becoming “boss” to the coked-up and comic Uncle Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and the fair-haired and ineffectual pothead, Uncle Darren (Luke Ford). Flitting about them all is J’s uncomfortably affectionate grandmother, Janine “Smurf” Cody (Jacki Weaver).

Though Detective Leckie is, as a cop and a mustache wearer, less than 100-percent confidence-inspiring, J’s family is not one bit more so. Herein lies the drama: the decision making. Animal Kingdom is not a fast-paced movie. Despite some plot similarities to Scorcese’s Good Fellas, this story of an “innocent” drawn into a life of crime, endangered and pushed toward betrayal by association with a reckless psychopath unfolds slowly, even tediously.

Oddly, that is one of its strengths. Much of criminality is waiting. Hiding. Biding time. The slow, sick dull tension of this life is well conveyed in Animal Kingdom, as is the paradoxical clannishness and pervasive mistrust. J, as one of the weak, must align himself with the strong, he must belong to and with someone—but who can be trusted?

On that subject, filmmaker David Michod takes a tack that is more noir than mob-family drama—with great effect. Noir’s emphasis was always on the individual—more existential dilemma than sociocultural study—and Michod and his characters have some neat tricks up their sleeves. All of which are conveyed effectively, with minimal grandstanding or big actorish moments by an economical and extremely talented cast.

Pearce’s pitch centers the movie as a story of the survival of the fittest; but in Animal Kingdom, as in the animal kingdom, weakness can be ruse and strength comes camouflaged.

—John Rodat

 

Scientist: Weisz in Agora.

Eclipsed

Agora

Directed by Alejandro Amenabar

Agora opens with a lecture. A lecture on astronomy, at a time when civilization still believed that the sun revolved around the earth. But since the lecturer is Hypatia, the beautiful and brilliant daughter of the director of the great Library of Alexandria, and because Hypatia is played by Rachel Weisz with compelling poise, the opening sequence of Alejandro Amenabar’s historical epic is more engaging than it sounds. Hypatia is surrounded by adoring disciples, including a household slave, Davus (Max Minghella), with a promising future in science. While Davus secretly smolders for Hypatia, another student, the aristocratic Orestes (Oscar Isaac), courts her openly. And is refused. With the blessings of her father, Theon (Michael Lonsdale), Hypatia lives as freely as a man.

But not many men are living freely in Roman Egypt 391 AD. Though Hypatia, an atheist, is purely devoted to science, the society she teaches in is in the midst of theological, political, and social upheaval. The Egyptian pagan hierarchy is being challenged by a rapidly growing Christian population—at one point, a Christian rabble attacks the library, demoralizing the confident defenders by their unexpected numbers. One of the Christian thugs is Davus, who remains conflicted between his love for Hypatia and science, and the freedom, power, and blind devotion of Christianity. Meanwhile Roman politicos and religious leaders, including the Jewish elite, scheme and plot for control. The favored battle tactic is throwing stones, which gives the violence a biblical force beyond the usual swords-and-sandals pile-ups.

Yet despite its evocative palette of sandy beiges and iconographic blues, the film is muddy in tone. At times, it lurches into ineptly choreographed action scenes (the talented Amenabar is noticeably inexperienced with large-scale conflicts); at others, it tries for a mystical ambience, with aerial shots of the populace scurrying around like insects, or satellite visions of the cosmos that Hypatia is struggling to understand. Amenabar (director of The Others and The Sea Inside Me) is better with the personal than the political, as when Hypatia firmly stands for philosophy above religion, even when her refusal to become Christian puts her in danger. The momentum is also dampened by a midlife break of several years, during which Hypatia comes closer to understanding planetary motion and Orestes becomes a prefect who relies on her intellect though he can’t win her heart. A little too gradually, the young bishop Cyril (Sami Samir) rises to villainous power.

So yes, Agora is epic in scope, if not in sweep. The central problem—besides some of the meandering narrative (especially concerning Hypatia’s failing father, and later, the role of the Roman army)—is that Hypatia herself is lost in the tumult of history. She is made eminently admirable as a scientist, but little is revealed of her as a person. Ironically, Agora’s pseudo yet powerful ending makes it most memorable as a love story.

—Ann Morrow


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